Greetings from beyond the void, and Happy March! I'm going to start off this month's blog posts with some thoughts about Korean boy bands. I talk a lot about girl groups because I'm interested in representations of women in pop culture, but I'm actually a huge fan of the boy bands. So much so that I can't really pick a favorite - each have their own appeal for me. I'll get into that later, but for now, let's start off with my thoughts on Big Bang's comeback.
I discovered Big Bang in late 2008 after some aimless internet browsing led me to the video of Taeyang's "Where You At". Slowly but surely, I came around to them. The pop with R&B and hip-hop influences really appealed to me - and as any Big Bang fan will tell you, their best tracks (as a five-member unit) are the ones that lean closer to pop - "My Heaven", "Lies", "Haru Haru". Truth be told, save those tracks, I'm not super hyped up on Big Bang's repertoire - it took me a while to warm up to Number 1, their English-language album featuring pretty much all their major tracks. But, I know what their capable of. The slew of solo and sub-unit releases that they've delivered in the past year or so are proof that this group is super talented and also pretty well developed artists. They know their style and what works, and stick with it for the most part. So after loving GD&TOP Vol. 1 and VVIP, I was ready for another "replay until it scratches" type CD.
Unfortunately, I didn't love this album all that much. Don't get me wrong - the songs are good, the production is stellar and they all sound awesome, but it wasn't mind-blowing. And I was hoping for mindblowing. Maybe it's because it's a mini-album and so they decided to lean electronic instead of pop, and saved the awesome pop songs for the other mini coming out in the fall - I don't know. But I was hoping for a song similar to their Japanese release, "Let Me Hear Your Voice" - midtempo, melodic pop gold. I do like what I have though - "Tonight" is made for the clubs, and is a nice development of the electronic sound they've been promoting in Japan. "Hands Up" has been my jam since the Japanese version, and somehow, "Somebody To Love" appeals to me more as a part of this album than it did as a B-side to "Beautiful Hangover", which I wasn't particularly a fan of. "What Is Right" is okay. "Cafe" is my favorite track off the album - melodic, smooth, and awesomely complemented by the trumpets, which found their way from Seungri's "V.V.I.P" to a much more comfortable position. It's also my favorite because it's evenly distributed among the members - I felt there was a dearth of Daesung in this album, and it's a damn shame - that man's voice is amazing.
This I felt was closer to the Big Bang I was familiar with - the other songs are very obviously G-Dragon's doing, and while not a bad thing in principle, it makes the album sound more like a "Heartbreaker Vol. 2" as opposed to "Big Bang's 4th Mini Album". I suspect that with the myriad of solo releases in a bunch of different styles, they decided to go with only GD's songs for this mini to make it cohesive.
Now, as McRoth said as a part of his Allkpop review, Big Bang is known to be the trendsetting innovative boy band. So to see them simply step in and pwn the rest of k-pop at their own game, instead of taking k-pop in a new direction, or their old direction which was unique in k-pop from the start, is a little disappointing. Watching their live stages, it becomes obvious that as a group, they're at the peak of their success and ability - they dominate the stage with only five members, while other groups need seven or nine people simply to be a presence on stage. And fans go wild, even if all they do is raise an arm or shuffle a leg. They no longer need to work to sell albums - they only need to maintain the same level of greatness that they're at. And I think that, if they are aware of that, then this is why this album fell short of expectations, because they're no longer trying to reach the top - they're already there, and it seems like they can't go any higher, so they're chilling. I'm not singing their death paean yet, but unless they come hard with their next mini, I'll be lowering my expectations for any future releases from this group. It's no fun if you can't expect bigger and better things from a group.
All this talk of the height of success makes me think back to TVXQ. I try to stay out of discussions of the drama with the departure of Jaejoong, Junsu and Yoochun, but I have to acknowledge something: that when the trio left, Yunho and Changmin had a very difficult task ahead of them. They had to continue to promote TVXQ without three members, and still maintain the level of quality they had established for themselves over the years. I'm sure they felt abandoned and let down, as if the trio had simply dropped the group that they had worked so hard to promote together for so long. I have to give HoMin credit for still being successful despite how they might be feeling, and all the drama going on. It's really never going to be the same, as the way things are looking, no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit is, a reunion would be long in coming if at all. However, because of the success that they've already achieved, not unlike Big Bang, there's not too much work to do. An established fanbase means a steady flow of income, so long as you keep releasing albums at least once a year, you're good. Even if the music falls short of expectations, fans will still buy the music because they feel the need to support their "oppas", and feel bad if, you know, they can't buy their designer clothes as usual.
I did a bit of research into the history of boy bands in S. Korea - it seems that they didn't have the same lull in debuts as girl groups did, but, I can definitely say that TVXQ and Big Bang are the most popular of the boy bands that debuted in the 2000s (distinguishing them from the legendary H.O.T, g.o.d, and Shinhwa, who started out in the 90's when k-pop was just taking off) and are still active as groups and not as solo artists. Hot on their heels is SS501 - a band that doesn't really appeal to me, but again, has a faithful fanbase that keeps them at the top of the charts. They all debuted around the same time (2005-2006). After them came Super Junior and a little later, 2PM, who also found spots at the top of the roster. So you now have five bands - each with their own distinctive style, and all crazy popular. But of course, because everyone wants a piece of the pie, you get even MORE bands - SHINee, 2AM, B2ST, MBLAQ, Infinite, U-Kiss The Boss, Dalmatian, Teen Top, Supernova, CNBlue, FT Island, F.Cuz, SHU-I, ZE:A.... anyone tired yet? While with girl groups you only really have three top groups - Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and SNSD, who have been active for at most, three years - with boybands you have FIVE, all who have been active for at least three years, most for five, and everyone wants to compete with and surpass them. The playing field is much smaller, and there's only so much success to go around. (I can't help but think that if they had only debuted a couple of years earlier, they might have been better off, as popularity seems directionally proportional to how early you debuted.)
How do they distinguish themselves, then? Well, apart from using a bunch of different (read: ridiculous) concept to keep things fresh, they also put a lot more effort into the quality of their music. Both girl groups and boy bands depend on the sexy or the cute to push CD units, but for girls it's a lot easier. Just compare SNSD's last album to SHINee's album. All SNSD needs to do is flash some leg and they sell CDs. But SHINee had to come with killer tracks, killer choreo, AND a unique concept. I'm not saying that girl groups don't work as hard; I'm saying that gaining interest in a new release is comparably easy for them. Get the boys drooling and the girls envious (apologies for the heteronormative examples, but these are the terms in which marketing executives think these days) and poof, you have sales. But for guys, it's not that easy. Just look at B2ST: they're currently the latest boy band on the rise, and they only managed that after seriously upping their game in the musical department (Mastermind + Lights Go On Again > Shock Of the New Era > B2ST is the BEST). In comparison, Secret gave up musical uniqueness (and a "confident diva" concept) to appeal to the masses, and have only now managed to break the glass ceiling and taste the popularity enjoyed by YG, SM and JYP girl groups.
|Promotional photo for B2ST's very successful "Welcome To B2ST Airline" Concert|
[I think this says something about society and how we think, or how we're trained to think by marketing execs - hot girls mean a worthy purchase, but hot boys don't, because beautiful women are more marketable, to both men and women. I don't know why this is the case, but I can come up with a theory or two: women in the past had less money to spend on music, so it was marketed primarily to men who wouldn't take interest in male performers if it wasn't quality music. Thus when women began to have more purchasing power, old standards remained so things were marketed to women as if they were men, and products marketed directly to women were done in a way that implies that the purpose of this product is to make them more attractive to men. I can't think of any examples of this off the top of my head, but I'm sure you can find some if you take a gander at websites like Sociological Images and The Grand Narrative (South Korean examples). To bring it back to the topic then, it will be interesting to look at the breakdown of pop group fandoms and consumers of pop music by gender and see if my theory pans out. Not sure how I'm gonna do this, but it sounds like a fun project :) ]
It's interesting then to see how boy bands without serious musical skill try to keep themselves in the fray. Super Junior have their subunits, SS501 sent most of their members to the drama Boys Over Flowers, which has a fandom all its own, and now that they're no longer all under the same management, they're releasing solo material - a great move, if you ask me. I wouldn't have given them the time of day if Kim Hyung Joon and Park Jung Min didn't put out pretty decent solo single[s/albums] recently. Big Bang does the solo thing, since it's a YG thing, apparently. Most other bands stick to variety appearances and acting roles. Another big thing is concept: not just a different concept for each release, but also an overarching concept for each group. I don't know exactly what each band's overall concept is, but I can guess most of them: Big Bang - Trendy Hip Hop. Super Junior - the cool guys at your high school, who are also quirky. SS501 - F5 aka Flower Boys. DBSK - hotter than your oppars*. Dalmatian - doggy dog hip-hop/vocal swag. CNBlue - Korean Beatles cover band (though that might change with their new album). FT Island - idol ballad rockers. Infinite - awesome dancers. SHINee - trendy noona killers. Teen Top - trendy agasshi killers. 2PM - beast idols. B2ST - the new cool kids. I could go on, but from here on out they tend to overlap, so I'll stop here, lol. But notice how the boy bands tend to stick to these concepts, while the girls for the most part switch in and out of them as it suits their needs.
After thinking through this all, then, I realize that one of the reasons I can't pick a favorite boy band is they all offer me different things that I enjoy. I like Super Junior mainly because of their music videos, and Kyuhyun's awesome voice. I like 2PM for their dance pop songs. I like Dalmatian, B2ST (as of recently) and Big Bang for the music. I like Infinite for their dance skills. I like DBSK/JYJ for their overall talent. CNBlue for their potential to grow into a really great (pop-)rock band. And I like SHINee for the vocal talent. While none of these on their own is enough to rate any one group as a top group (for me, that would mean great music, vocal talent, dance skills and looks/personality all combined), save a few, they're enough to keep me interested in each of the groups, and hopefully enough to at least put food on the tables of these hardworking idols. The idol world is tough for both men and women, so one only hopes that they all get through it and come out at the end well-rounded and happy individuals, with no suicides or bankruptcies.
*I've been reading too much Omona! They Didn't. Forgive me for any weird expressions.
Sound off in the comments! Who's your favorite boy band and why? (No fan wars or bashing, please)